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Analyzing Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times”

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Ciara White , Co-Managing Editor/A&E Editor November 3, 2021

I recently watched Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times,” a 1936 comedy about the hardships that come with living in an industrialized world. The movie is entertaining, hilarious, and often considered one of Chaplin’s more critically acclaimed pieces.

Charlie Chaplin is an English actor who, in the early 1900s, rose to fame and popularity in the silent film industry. He became most recognizable through his iconic Tramp character, a social outcast with a kind heart. In “Modern Times,” the Tramp finds himself living amidst poor financial conditions heightened by massive unemployment.

The Tramp character is endearing. Although he makes countless mistakes—like accidentally sending a boat off to sea or getting swallowed by a factory machine—he adds a layer of social commentary.

Despite his good nature, the Tramp always seems to find himself in bad situations. For example, he gets arrested several times throughout this movie, once because he is suspected of being a communist, which is not the case. By having the Tramp be so genuine and likable, it suggests that he is not the problem. Society is.

Chaplin suggests that authority takes advantage of the working class and prioritizes efficiency over humanity.

When watching the movie, it is important to recognize the context of the time period. In 1936, Americans were dealing with the Great Depression and the effects of the country’s longest and worst economic downturn. Many Americans were poor and unemployed, and that is shown clearly throughout the movie.

“Modern Times” does not shy away from showing the horrors of American life at the time. Despite its comedic nature, the movie has a tragic core. Our main character works at a factory, whose unfair working conditions drive him to a nervous breakdown. Multiple characters–including the Tramp–steal to survive and strikes occur frequently.

This movie also came during the “red scare,” a time when Americans feared leftism and communism, or, quite frankly, anyone sympathetic to workers and labor.

While I liked the movie first because of its humor and incorporation of a favorite song, “Smile”—which I will touch on later—its value goes beyond that. Standing as a timeless social commentary, the movie gives its audience insight into the era’s worries and thoughts regarding employment and capitalism.

Those ideas can still apply today, and the message of “Modern Times” remains relevant.

Because of the stock market crash of 1929, the U.S. went from being an economic power to a floundering country unable to recover. Hoover was a dangerous laughingstock for his inability to help, and the Great Depression lasted well into FDR’s presidency. It was primarily World War II that allowed the United States reprieve and recovery.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also hit the American economy severely. With businesses shutting down and millions of people losing their jobs, the unemployment rate rocketed. People struggled to make ends meet, whereas the high, mighty corporations prospered, which is also true for the Great Depression.

A key difference, however, is the worker shortage the nation is experiencing today. Whereas people in the Great Depression wanted jobs—and were unable to get them—businesses today are struggling to find workers. While COVID-19 might be a primary factor in this, the issue is complex.

“Modern Times” speaks on that complexity.

One idea frequently discussed today is the exploitation of labor. Workers are unhappy with how they’re treated by management, and they will not force themselves to endure that.

Communism was attacked in the 1930s, but there was also skepticism with capitalism. If the Great Depression showed anything, it showed that capitalism can fail. It can also be a system that dehumanizes people.

The opening clip of the movie shows sheep running in a field, implying that workers are sheep. Chaplin shows how employment and capitalism value practicality over individuality of the workers, stripping employees of any personality or autonomy. Corporations and companies own the workers, and multiple shots suggest that work eats its workers, using and abusing them until they’re exhausted or driven mad.

modern times analysis essay

Chaplin saw the assembly line as abusive, and the character he plays works in a factory. It makes me wonder what Chaplin would think of conditions today. Would he believe that they’re better–or worse?

These messages tend to be very dark and disheartening, but that is not how Charlie Chaplin ended the movie. Despite any statements he wanted to make about class differences or working conditions, his movie ends with hope. Through the use of music to set the mood, the Tramp character decides that no matter how bad his life is, he can still be happy because of the love he has for the people around him.

The music used became the song “Smile,” which is among my favorites. In 1976, it was a melody that acted as a motif, but it would later receive lyrics based on the inter-titles in the film. When the Tramp and his companion—called the Gamin—have just lost their jobs and are being chased by the police, they realize that they do not need material things to be happy. They walk into the horizon together. There is something powerful with that final image.

The lyrics say, “Smile, what’s the use of crying? / You’ll find that life is still worthwhile / if you just smile.”

Chaplin’s powerful idea has lasted 85 years.

Entertainment can stand as a mirror, allowing us to see into the attitudes and worries of any time period. While it can give us a better understanding of a time, it can also act as a timeless resource of self-reflection, where we can look upon our society today and see if things have improved.

Have things changed and changed enough? “Modern Times” still prompts us to ask the hard questions, but it also reminds us to smile at every dawn.

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Modern Times

The Definitives

Critical essays, histories, and appreciations of great films

Modern Times

Essay by brian eggert august 25, 2008.

Modern Times

Asymmetrical in form, he cuts a distinctive figure. His derby hat rests upon his head at an angle, its slant accentuated by the straightness of his suspenders and the forced lines of his tight-buttoned coat. Air fluffs his baggy pants, which seem to tighten like a balloon knot at his ankles, where his over-sized shoes oblige his feet to point outward, causing him to waddle when he walks. Balancing himself, he carries a bamboo cane that maintains his posture. He looks as though his once sweet life has passed. His garb is tattered, and his eyes are dark, but his mustache is short and trimmed, and his demeanor is always gentlemanly. And yet, his good manners are married with a liberated sense of freedom and severance, displacing him as an outsider reliant only on his most human instincts. His appearance reflects this station, giving him an uneven silhouette, albeit immediately familiar and identifiable. This is the Tramp. This is Charles Chaplin. But more than an iconographic image of early cinema magic, more than a comedic pantomime or sentimentalist director, Chaplin provoked thought with his tender comedies. His ingenious 1936 picture Modern Times confirms this by illustrating how the human condition struggles under the foot of industry and technological advancement. His foreword: “Modern Times.” A story of industry, of individual enterprise—humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness. Chaplin explores how the average person must not only fight for contentment, but in an industrial world, we must fight to preserve our individualism against the rising tide of so-called progress.

His message is conveyed through the universal rhetoric of comedy; invasive commentary is left on the wayside, which has left some critics to argue that Chaplin does not live up to his foreword’s promise. He satires the effects of industry according to how it fails humanist concerns. This is accomplished through the Tramp’s adventures, each of which could be whole two-reelers. Indeed, the film is episodic, taking the Tramp from place to place while maintaining a unifying theme of survival in the industrial, Depression-era world. To claim the picture lacks the emotional structure of Chaplin’s clear comedic melodramas ( City Lights , The Kid ), however, is an error. Accompanying our hero the Tramp is the “Gamin,” played by the delightful Paulette Goddard, Chaplin’s lover for a number of years until 1940. Gamin being the masculine French noun for mischievous or playful street urchin, Chaplin would later admit he should have called her gamine , the feminine form. Nevertheless, Goddard plays her as the perfect accompaniment to the established Tramp. Her first scene involves an act of Robin Hood-type bravery. She steals bananas for poor children, bringing them home to her family, which is soon broken apart by social services. She, too, becomes a vagabond, but eventually, she finds a kindred spirit in the Tramp. Together, the two are what Chaplin called “two playmates—partners in crime, comrades, babes in the woods.”

modern times analysis essay

Chaplin believed machinery should benefit humanity, not remove humanity from the individual. When he returned to Hollywood after a year-long hiatus in 1932, he was taken aback by the “tyranny of the machine” and the dwindling spirit of Depression-era America. He blamed those who constructed machines for solely profit-making purposes rather than improving the lives of ordinary citizens. Chaplin would write, “Something is wrong. Things have been badly managed when five million men are out of work in the richest country in the world.” Chaplin questioned why massive factories produced a cheaper product faster if the process drives workers to the unemployment office. With so many struggling or out of work, who could afford the excess of consumer products being built? Since it was not a specific company (an obvious choice like Ford Motors) Chaplin sought to scrutinize, he avoids labeling the factory in his film. We learn neither the company’s name nor what they manufacture, as Chaplin prefers to target capitalism as a whole.

Despite Chaplin’s commentary, Modern Times is not a message film; rather, it is an exercise in human emotions in which the setting reflects the changing world. “The question is not whether the country is wet or dry,” Chaplin wrote, “but whether the country is starved or fed.” His concern is humanity’s place in a world where industrialization dehumanizes middle-class citizens. This is never more delightfully spelled-out than when the Tramp, having been driven mad by the monotony of tightening bolts, leaps into a port where his body moves effortlessly among the clockwork of gears inside. His body bends to fit every curvature, and he becomes a cog in the wheels of industry. When he emerges again on the factory floor, his madness sends him into a whimsical frolic, spraying oil in workers’ faces, twisting his wrenches on everything in sight that resembles a bolt. Outside the factory, the Tramp spots a woman with notably large breasts, punctuated by bolt-like buttons. He chases after her with a wild glint in his eye; his gag fulfills itself without the Tramp carrying out the suggested action.

modern times analysis essay

Chaplin’s critics at the time saw the film as communistic as opposed to humanistic, the latter being the director’s true intention. Key scenes have been misread as serious commentary instead of comedic folly: The Tramp is institutionalized for his on-the-job breakdown and released shortly thereafter with a clean bill of mental health. Back on the street, he sees a rear distance flag fall off a truck. He picks it up and chases after, waving the flag to get the driver’s attention. Around the corner behind him, a communist rally turns and marches down the street, giving the impression that the Tramp leads the worker’s strike. However, Chaplin seems to preemptively say not to misconstrue Modern Times as a statement with this scene, but his critics—J. Edgar Hoover among them—came to that conclusion nonetheless. In the film, the Tramp is caught and thrown in jail for his assumed demonstration. Off-camera, Chaplin’s political reputation would come under an increasingly hot spotlight.

Indeed, Chaplin left the United States in 1952 after enduring years of persecution for his freethinking, free-voiced opinions about capitalists and politicians. His remaining years were spent at his home in Switzerland. An article in the April 1953 issue of Time wrote the following: Charlie Chaplin, British subject, surrendered his U.S. re-entry permit in Geneva and flew off to London. Chaplin had made his decision. The U.S. Immigration authorities had warned him that he would be subject to a screening exam, just as any other alien, when he returned. In his London hotel room he wrote his valedictory after 40 years of U.S. residence: “. . . Since the end of the last world war, I have been the object of lies and propaganda by powerful reactionary groups who, by their influence and by the aid of America’s yellow press, have created an unhealthy atmosphere in which liberal-minded individuals can be singled out and persecuted. Under these conditions I find it virtually impossible to continue my motion-picture work, and I have therefore given up my residence in the United States.”

How strange that Modern Times , along with Chaplin’s himself, was met with harsh disapproval. His concerns were with the basic needs and desires of humanity. Chaplin grew up in poverty, so his films often feature the Tramp struggling to find something to eat or cope with the daily reality of hunger. After the Tramp earns a release from prison for thwarting an escape, he refuses to leave since it affords him free shelter and three meals a day. Outside, the unemployed starve. When he’s forced out, he happily buys an exorbitantly large meal with no intention of paying, if only to get back into prison. Later still, back again on the outside, the Tramp gets a job as a night watchman. Burglars arrive not to ransack the store, but to feed themselves. “We ain’t burglars—we’re hungry.” Food even occupies the Tramp’s daydreams—his fantasy home includes a fruit tree at the window and a milk-producing cow that comes when called.

modern times analysis essay

Released by United Artists, which Chaplin originated along with Douglas Fairbanks, D. W. Griffith, and Mary Pickford in 1919, the film’s production resisted an all-out committal to sound because Chaplin was more certain of his success within the voiceless theatricality of silent-era filmmaking. Long after the major studios had opted for sound, Chaplin released City Lights  in 1931, earning rave reviews and box-office. Chaplin was committed to the idea that music provides background effects, while pantomime supplied the emotion. Dialogue was not necessary and would slow his process, thus hindering the film’s comedic effect. In interviews, he predicted sound pictures would last no more than a year; and a year later, when they did not disappear, he insisted that if talkies were to last, it would not be in his own pictures. During a five-year filmmaking hiatus, Chaplin fought with the reality that his pictures were no longer how films were made. And by the time production began on  Modern Times  in 1933, Chaplin had written a full script complete with dialogue, if only to keep up with his title’s setting.

Chaplin initially set out to make his first talkie, since most of his Hollywood contemporaries had made the leap years before. But had he followed through with his chatty script, Modern Times would not be the same film; it would fail in hypocrisy. Luckily, perhaps fearing modernization like the Tramp in his film, Chaplin resisted full-fledged sound and instead relied on synchronizing certain sound effects and voices. Whereas dialogue appears on infrequent title cards, the film features audible car horns, whistles, grinding gadgets, buzzers, and stomach grumblings. When Chaplin does use a voice, it comes from a disembodied source. Note how the factory owner speaks on a video screen, or how the salesman (“Your Speaker: The Mechanical Salesman”) arrives to demonstrate the aforementioned feeding machine and, rather than pitch the machine himself, he humorously plays the spiel on a phonograph. Modern Times critiques those who would so unreservedly jump into the new sound format.

modern times analysis essay

To be sure, the sound effects are impersonal and communicated through filters, while their substance is often gibberish. The factory president who spends his time putting together puzzles in his office, for example, occasionally turns to his monitor and barks an order; we never see him actually speak in person, only on his screen, his head blown up to a massively authoritarian size. In the last hurrah, Chaplin finally allows his audience to hear the Tramp’s voice in a lovely take on the French tune “Titine,” sung at a posh soiree where the Tramp has secured a job as a performing waiter. The Tramp scrambles with his serving duties until he is forced to sing. Gamine quickly scribbles the lyrics onto his cuffs, but he loses them during his introductory dance routine. The result is an improvised refrain crooned with nonsensical pseudo-French words, illustrating the uselessness of specific dialogue in the presence of sound, but we fully understand the meaning of the song thanks to Chaplin’s pantomimic clarity.

Chaplin’s greatest achievements were as a visual performer, whether he was making sound films or silent. He followed Modern Times with The Great Dictator in 1940, and despite the inclusion of dialogue and lengthy political speeches, the scenes we remember are Chaplin’s pseudo-Hitler bouncing a balloon-globe into the air. Chaplin lived by the maxim that actions speak louder than words; specifically, he believed cinema an exclusively pantomimic artform—an opinion no doubt influenced by watching his mother perform in music halls throughout his childhood, and then advancing onto the stage himself at a young age. He told Time in a 1931 interview promoting City Lights , “Action is more generally understood than words. Like the Chinese symbolism it will mean different things according to its scenic connotation. Listen to a description of some unfamiliar object—an African warthog, for example. Then look at a picture of the animal and see how surprised you are.” Chaplin knew the Tramp’s charm rested in his wordless expression, as the character communicated emotions visually, therefore universally. Even though audiences had never heard the Tramp speak, and hearing his voice in Modern Times was revelatory, the film’s lasting achievements remain purely physical. Consider the impressive planning required to accomplish the scene where the Tramp roller-skates in an under-construction section on the fourth floor of the department store. Chaplin blindfolds himself as he glides about, moving gracefully and coming dangerously close to the edge of an open section of the floor. Certainly, this daring sequence holds significant artistic merit over any instance of sound by its choreography alone.

Not that Chaplin was the type of genius to have every little detail or gag or sequence preplanned in his head. His scenes and narratives developed from a process of improvisation. Scripts were a non-item. Whole scenes were described with a single sentence, such as “Charlie in jail,” and on the set, Chaplin and his troupe of performers would work out the scene. His genius was bringing these improvised scenes together into a cohesive story, but more than that, making his story as touching and joyful as they often were. The film’s last scene of the Tramp and the Gamine walking into the distance is bittersweet. Not merely because this was the sole instance of Chaplin ending a picture with the Tramp accompanied by a friend, but because it was the Tramp’s last appearance altogether. Modern Times was Chaplin’s last brilliant foray into that singular craft that made him a great artist: a pantomime. From then on, his pictures would be no less endearing or brilliantly conceived, but not the classic or iconographic (or soundless) Charlie that made him legendary.

Bibliography:

Chaplin, Charles. My Autobiography . Simon & Schuster, 1964.

Okuda, Ted; Maska, David. Charlie Chaplin at Keystone and Essanay: Dawn of the Tramp . iUniverse, 2005.

Robinson, David. Chaplin: His Life and Art . McGraw-Hill, second edition, 2001.

Schickel, Richard. The Essential Chaplin: Perspectives on the Life and Art of the Great Comedian . I.R. Dee, 2006.

Vance, Jeffrey. Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema . Harry N. Abrams, 2003.

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modern times analysis essay

Biting Back at the Machine: Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times

I wish to tease out an inverse counter-current to these forms of ingestion , which together constitute a revolution by rejection. (2) Men swallowed by machines are spit out in transfigured form and engage in sabotage; the filching of food by the poor disrupts the social order and calls into question its morality; and the apparent devouring of consumer dreams is in fact a humorous/satirical undermining of their logic.

Chaplin’s critique of the machine age is rooted in a history of industrial sabotage. It also foreshadows many artistic responses to the “megamachine,” from George Orwell’s “Big Brother,” to the monkey-wrenchers of Edward Abbey and T.C. Boyle, to the visionary city symphony Koyaanisqatsi (Godfrey Reggio, 1982), in which humans are enslaved by the technology that is their grid and host. (3)

At a meeting with Mahatma Gandhi, Chaplin said he was “confused by your abhorrence of machinery,” which could “release man from the bondage of slavery,” if altruistically used, Chaplin argued. Gandhi replied that machinery had made India dependent on England, so “we must make ourselves independent of it if we are to gain our freedom.” (4) By the time he began production of Modern Times (then titled “The Masses”), Chaplin was declaring: “Machinery should benefit mankind. It should not spell tragedy, or throw it out of work.” (5)

Chaplin wanted The Tramp’s swan song to address the pressing issues of the Great Depression and pre-WWII years: unemployment, food shortages, the Fordist routinization of industry, and repression of political protest. (6) Chaplin’s ability to combine hilarity with pathos reached classic heights in this film. But inside of Modern Times ’ factories, a surveillance worthy of Orwell and Michel Foucault runs things, while on the streets a police state squashes all protest.

Chaplin shows drug-running in prisons and Communist marches; he lampoons religious do-gooders and glorifies food theft by the poor. Like most Chaplin films, Modern Times is episodic, but a meta-narrative emerges: “the spirit of the machine age” is double-voiced; machines mechanize human beings, but the “weapons of the weak” are available, (7) and the human spirit can break out of its confinements, providing not only comic relief but utopian models during dystopian times.

I will frame my reading with comments from two students about the Tramp’s interaction with machines. In an opening sequence when factory machines are sped up to an inhuman pace, the only way to keep up with the pace was to go inside the machine . Later, the Tramp feeds a mechanic who is trapped inside a machine during lunchtime. Everything in the camera’s view is eating . (8) That of course includes the “man-eating machine.” These observations are openings onto Chaplin’s visual comedy about the dangers of being “eaten alive” (9) in the machine age, and his tribute to the spirit of human resistance and innovation which endures, even in the belly of the beast, or in the face of efforts to regulate and mechanize human behaviour.

Much of this metanarrative is signalled in the establishing shots. First there is a long shot of a clock tower: industrial time rules this world portrayed here. Chaplin then shows a flock of sheep rushing through a corral. In the center is a black sheep. Next workers rush out of a subway. Workers are like sheep, we infer, but Chaplin’s tramp will be the black sheep who breaks norms and demonstrates escape routes from sheepish or machine-like behaviour.

Ingestion and Dysfunction in Man-Machine consumption

Chaplin’s Tramp will not become a man of corn in the sense of the critique of industrial food as developed in King Corn (Aaron Woolf, 2006): a perversion of traditional corn culture which has produced corn-fed people whose very molecular structure and thought patterns reflect the industrial foods they eat. (11) Charlie the Tramp would eat anything put in front of him, but Chaplin the man was a vegetarian, and his critique of the machine age extended to industrial food, as this scene implies.

This scene also foreshadows later sabotage. Although the tramp is grateful for the free food, and is not trying to “monkey wrench” the feeding machine, this machine goes haywire. It may have been defective to begin with, but something here doesn’t compute: the Tramp is wired differently from the more regimented workers the machine was designed to feed. It’s almost as if the machine cannot process the Tramp’s free spirit, and blows its gaskets in the effort. There is a further foreshadowing in this scene, when the machine shoves steel nuts into his mouth. As Russ Castronovo observes, “before Chaplin is swallowed in the belly of the industrial beast, he finds the machine inside his belly.” (12) Every time the machine tries to swallow or mechanize The Tramp, we might expect he will break down, or become like the machine. But it is the machine and factory system which breaks down, when it cannot digest Charlie’s Tramp.

  • We are being shown that accidents are commonplace when machines are sped up to an inhuman pace. In the 21 st century, the swallowing of humans on the production line will be played for horror, in Fast Food Nation (Richard Linklater, 2006). (14) But this sequence is perhaps more akin to the wonder evoked by the sped-up flows of production and traffic in Koyanisqatsi .
  • In his Autobiography , Chaplin traces the film’s genesis to a conversation with a reporter about Detroit production lines, particularly “healthy young men off the farms who, after 4-5 years at the belt system, became nervous wrecks.” (15) Chaplin denotes a commonplace of the machine age, nervous breakdowns. But the sequence is choreographed like a ballet, from the moment of being swallowed alive, through the subsequent madcap sabotage. Modern Times man-eating machine connotes much more than it denotes.
  • Chaplin’s Tramp is like Jonas in the belly of the whale, spat out transfigured and ready to undertake his mission. He only goes to warn of imminent destruction because he has been swallowed alive, which defamiliarizes his relationship to “the beast.”
  • Charlie’s body winding through the gears looks much like film being wound through a projector. Chaplin may be commenting on the loss of the utopian potential of film.
  • The nature of his transfiguration is unique in the history of representations of sabotage. After his jerky movements in the morning, when he cannot stop his mechanized motions, and tries to “tighten” women’s buttons, etc. we might expect that he will become more like the machine. But after being “vomited”/rejected, he emerges deranged, but more human –dancing a ballet. It is while dancing that his sabotage goes into high gear.

The second “machine-eating” scene occurs when the Tramp goes back to work because he wants to buy a “real home” for “The Gamin” (Paulette Goddard). This is a final effort to function within an institutional context; one must read it in relation to a string of earlier failures. After his breakdown, when released from a hospital, he is swept into a series of misadventures: accused communist leader; a hero who foils a jail-break while (inadvertently) high on cocaine. Then he “gums the works” in one job after another, inevitably damaging (or pilfering) the merchandise. His only successes are in finding his way back to jail (a safe space) and charming Gamin. For her, he secures a job as a mechanic’s assistant, but he is such a klutz that no equipment is safe in his presence. He destroys his boss’s tools and then manages to get him stuck inside the gears of another machine. At lunch, he decides that feeding the mechanic is more important that extracting him from the sharp-toothed gears. The Tramp will not stop eating, after all. When he stuffs a stalk of celery in the mechanic’s mouth we can see: everything in the camera’s view is eating .

Chaplin’s theatrics of space suggests a particular kind of inter-relationship between the machine and the two men who are working on it, or being devoured by it. Keeping in mind the “ethical inversions” which predominate in this film, (17) one might ask re: the theatrical relations of this scene: who’s in charge? The master mechanic ought to be in charge. But he is imprisoned in the machine, at the mercy of a bumbling worker who is his inferior, in terms of technical competence. Charlie the Tramp in Modern Times is somewhat like the Juan Bobo of Puerto Rico, the town fool who can never get things right. (18) Yet Charlie has “mother wit.” Unlike that Bobo, Charlie’s apparent ineptness in practical matters serves as a critique of the limits of rationality. If the Tramp’s bumbling is well-meaning and unconscious, it serves the conscious designs of the film’s creator. In that sense, Chaplin the multi-millionaire masking as a down-and-out indigent is a forerunner of a very different sort of bobo —a bo urgeois professional who espouses bo hemian values. (19) Chaplin can afford to identify with the poor because he lives amongst the rich and privileged. From that safe distance he has made a fortune with his representations of the underclass everyman. But in the Tramp’s last appearance he gets off some parting shots at a new world order that marginalizes and indeed criminalizes all that is not mechanized.

An inversion has taken place here, and the intern-inmate is clearly in charge, at least for the moment. He re-establishes a set of priorities which have been crowded out by the machines, and the mechanized men who run them. Foremost amongst these priorities are the need for down time (indeed, work stoppage), and time for communal dining. Something like the innocence of a child’s perspective is evident, but re-ordered through the sensibility of an adult who is both politically engaged, and keenly attuned to the bottom line of entertaining a mass audience.

Chaplin is prescient in his representation of the struggle for food, and to control its distribution, in the machine age. (22) But this portrait hardly romanticizes leftists or labour unions: no sooner is the confining lunch hour over, when another worker rushes in and announces that they are on strike. So Charlie’s latest job evaporates in less than a day, just like the others.

In Modern Times , both marginalization and attempts at integration centre on food. Hunger and the dynamics of communal dining are central to three scenes on which I will focus:

– Lunching with a drug-smuggler in prison – Pilfering: bananas, bread, and free-loading – Dining with the Gamin in imagined and real ‘ideal homes’

Nose Powder in the Prison Cafeteria

Earlier he had filched small nibbles from his burly cell-mate through guile and trickery. But only while high on cocaine does he muster the manly force needed to take the bread for himself. Thus he is doubly rewarded, both by the authorities and by the convicts, for his ingestion of a banned substance. But his “inside job” merely lands him on the street, where “appetite appears to be linked with guilt and criminality as a condition of modern culture.” (23)

Food-filching and free-loading

The Gamin first appears on-screen as a desirable thief, making Robin Hood gestures and striking pirate postures. She cuts bananas on a boat, and then tosses them to hungry urchins on the dock, knife clenched in her teeth. A good-looking pirate indeed. Her redistribution of wealth is immediately comprehensible, given what we see of her poverty, and what we soon learn of her destitute family. But the boat and the bananas are private property. When the owner sees her, she scampers to safety, and then engages in another, gratuitous form of trespassing: she eats the banana in his view with defiant relish, a sexual undertone being perhaps a part of her taunting.

Like the Tramp, the Gamin is constantly dodging policemen, but she also flees from child welfare officials after her father is shot in a street protest. She never seems to eat anything that is not stolen, but the “theatrics of space” tell us that this is her due.

While the Gamin’s thievery is suffused with pathos, The Tramp’s shoplifting career is played for laughs. But these barbed laughs plant a subtext about the intertwining of appetites and criminality in modern times. The homeless soul-mates are brought together by a stolen loaf of bread. The Tramp tries to take the blame for her theft, which is typical of his gallantry towards women. But it is also self-interest: a ploy to go to jail. It is worth noting that it is actually the policeman who makes off with the bread. When the police discover that Charlie’s guilt is fictional, he is abandoned in front of a cafeteria. His quest for free food and shelter is realized by free-loading in the cafeteria, after which he enlists a policeman as accomplice. Called to witness Charlie’s inability to pay the bill, he sends the Tramp back to jail—on a full stomach.

Have they “swallowed consumerism”? They are trying on new identities, or new masks, like kids in a playhouse. When the Gamin dons a fur coat she also sports glamorous makeup, as if she were suddenly Cinderella. Charlie glides on a pair of roller skates, as if in a state of grace. But unattainable identities are soon shed like borrowed clothes. Some burglars surprise Charlie, whose knees buckle; one shoots, but only opens holes in a cask of rum. Scared stiff, the Tramp stands in front of the streaming rum with his mouth open. In short order he is in another state of altered consciousness. One of the intruders recognizes Charlie from the steel factory, and soon they are immersed in drunken camaraderie. Meanwhile, the glammed-up Gamin looks like a dream as she sleeps in the lap of luxury. Life on the lam is an intoxication, it seems.

When the store opens the next morning. Charlie has slept under a pile of clothes. A lady shopper tugs on a white shirt, which turns out to be the Tramp’s. When he is extracted, shoppers and the management are appalled, and Charlie and his Cinderella are unceremoniously booted out, where Charlie is carted off to jail once more. The shirt-tugging episode, read symbolically, suggests that consumers want goods produced by or services provided by the underclass, but they do not want the workers themselves. They do not want to be reminded of the presence of those whose flesh and whose labor underwrite their consumerist convenience and leisure.

A Little Taste of Paradise—in search of the “perfect home”

The theme of eating at home with one’s beloved as an unattainable paradise plays out in two parallel fantasies. The first home is imagined by Charlie, while the second is a depression-era shanty claimed by the Gamin. But in both scenes the momentary bliss experienced by the characters is dependent on a shared suspension of disbelief.

Enacting domestic happiness begins with first imagining it. Charlie’s fantasy of suburban bliss occurs after the couple is flung from a police wagon onto the streets (spit out by a machine again). (24) The pair had been arrested for theft—the Gamin’s bread; the Tramp’s super-size meal. Fugitives from justice, they wander into a suburban neighborhood and sit on a curb, where they witness a display of exaggerated marital bliss, with a deliriously happy housewife kissing her husband goodbye as he heads for work. What Charlie describes for the Gamin is a parody of the dream life of sub-urban abundance that was even then luring young professionals off the farm, or out of the cities. Returning home to his apron-clad lady, Charlie can reach into a window and pick an orange or grapes. He calls a cow which milks itself. His woman serves him a steak.

As he is cutting the meat, the “real” Gamin calls him back to reality. A policeman is standing over them, demanding that he keep it real . They are on private property and have to beat it.

Drawing on Gerald Mast’s brief discussion of Chaplin’s use of dream imagery, (25) David Lemaster argues that we should recognize “the importance of dreams [and fantasies] for establishing a sympathetic pity between Charlie and the audience.” In Lemaster’s view, this “motif is actually one of Chaplin’s favorites for further defining Charlie the Tramp’s mask.” (26)

That the Tramp wore a mask that had evolved into a more socially engaged form should be obvious, if we see the film in biographical as well as historical context. In My Autobiography , Chaplin recalled a period of depression and “continual sense of guilt” as he lived the Hollywood high life in the early 1930s. He was troubled by “the remark of a young critic who said that City Lights was very good, but that it verged on the sentimental and that in my future films I should try to approximate realism. I found myself agreeing with him.” (27)

Modern Times , then, was Chaplin’s effort to “approximate realism.” It was a tenuous approximation: Chaplin stubbornly adhered to silent film nine years into the sound era, and sentimentality was ingrained in his character. But as David Robinson’s biography shows, Chaplin was becoming radicalized during 1930s. (28) The Tramp’s “mask” in Modern Times was in keeping with the spirit of the times. The Tramp had long shown a proclivity to bend or break the law, and to live on the fringes of respectable society—close enough to pick off pretty young ladies, but far enough to avoid accountability for either his rule-flaunting or his skirt-chasing. In Modern Times the Tramp evokes our “sympathetic pity” both because of his evident longing for domesticity, and because of his discomfiture with the machine age. His fantasy about the abundance of a suburban Garden of Eden expresses a more politicized satire. We recognize the exaggerated nature of this fantasy, and our laughter has more bite if we see a piece of ourselves in this sketch. Most of us buy into such dreams, to some degree. Even though reality keeps snapping us back, such dreams of romantic or consumer bliss often prove stronger than reality.

But Chaplin more than skirts around realism in staging the other side of paradise—the Gamin’s “perfect” shack. In Philippe Truffault’s special feature Chaplin Today , Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne usefully compare this humble abode to Depression-era shanty town shacks. (29)

The shack interlude takes place 10 days after Charlie has been carted off from the department store, when the Gamin waits for him when he is released from jail. They stand outside the shack and gaze at it as if it is Zion. No sooner has Charlie stepped inside and pronounced: “It’s paradise,” than a board falls and clocks him on the head; the flimsy dining table collapses, and part of the roof caves in. “It’s not Buckingham Palace,” she acknowledges. But the day ends with their illusions and their innocence intact, the Gamin sleeping in a pallet on the floor, the Tramp like baby Jesus in the manger, curled up amidst some hay in a shed.

Reading the newspaper, Charlie sees that the factories have re-opened. Interrupting their meal, he dashes off to seek employment, wanting to buy a “real home.” By the skin of his teeth, he secures the mechanic’s assistant position which will be interrupted by a strike. Leaving the factory, Charlie once more has a run-in with a policeman, and is carted off to jail yet again.

I earlier suggested that Modern Times ’ response to the problematics of consumption—devouring machines, a food crisis, and consumerism—together constituted a sort of revolution by rejection . To fully define and explore the implications of that term is beyond the scope of this essay. But I want to sketch its meaning, and suggest how this might shape our assessment of Modern Times in relation to Chaplin’s career, and film history. Two questions I would pose regarding Chaplin’s comedic revolution by rejection are, what is being rejected? And is that rejection revolutionary?

Our retrospective view of this film must be shaped by the final image Chaplin chose: not the Gamin going to a convent, as Chaplin first filmed it, but the couple heading off towards an empty horizon together. This is similar to the iconography of the Western, and one might argue that the flight into a supposedly utopian anti-social nothingness is reactionary, at heart. Yet there is also something archetypal here about prophets who turn their backs on a corrupt society, and go to the wilderness seeking new vision. In cinematic terms, I think that other generic traditions besides the Western, or the road movie, are a propos . Charlie and the Gamin are “the only two live spirits in a world of automatons,” wrote biographer David Robinson: “spiritual escapees from a world in which [Chaplin] saw no other hope.” (31) The conclusion of Chaplin’s last silent film is a forerunner of the cinematic “Last Man on Earth” tradition, which became a major genre from the 1950s on. What later generations of filmmakers would process primarily through horror and melodrama, in the post-apocalyptic imagination, (32) Chaplin foreshadowed through comedy, in a pre-apocalyptic satire of machines and their guardians run amuck. There are ironies in Chaplin’s representation of an escape from modernity, while he was sleeping with Hollywood starlets and hobnobbing with world celebrities. But this ending is also prescient of his rejection in the U.S. during the era of anti-communist witch-hunts, and his exile in Switzerland. (33)

The “Modern Times” Movie Essay

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Introduction

Examination of the movie, works cited.

The movie “Modern Times”, widely considered to be Chaplin’s greatest work follows the adventures of Chaplain as he attempts to find a suitable job despite various unfortunately events and high jinks causing him to lose jobs one after the other.

While the movie itself is a comedy it does have various hidden metaphorical meanings which lend the film a greater brevity and meaning as compared to other silent films of the era. One theme which is expanded on in a comedic fashion is the effect being incarcerated has on an individual and his ability to adjust to society after being imprisoned for such a long period of time.

Towards the middle part of the movie people can see that Chaplain, after being released from jail, finds himself longing to be sent back to prison and being so far incapable of finding a proper job for himself. In reality this particular scene can be reinterpreted as the experiences newly released ex-convicts have when they are released from jail.

For a majority of them social reintegration is a harsh reality after years of being in a prison system where all their needs were taken care of (Coakley, 18). For them, reintegration is a harsh and arduous affair wherein due to their history of being a felon they are often derided against or shunned due to their past history.

As a result, this causes them to lose the ability to gain a stable means of employment resulting in them turning back to a life of crime either to survive or to be sent back to jail where they can at least be provided with somewhat decent living conditions.

It is this very experience that lies at the heart of “Modern Times”, while the film does express sentiments akin to the life of people during the modern day era it also reveals how due to societal changes in this era of ours people who have previously been incarcerated have no choice but to continue a cycle of crime as a result of the attitudes of the local populace.

While the film is comedic in nature it actually reveals the flaws of today’s modern society wherein people have to act in a certain way, be a certain type of person or behave in a prescribe manner in order to be accepted in society.

Chaplin’s decidedly awkward actions are actually a parody of how people learn how to conform to a society where being “different” often times leads to uncomfortable if not harsh circumstances. In fact it can be stated that the film itself shows how society itself has created prisons for the various individuals who live in it wherein they are unable to escape from the roles society has created for them as a result of their need to conform in order to survive.

Based on my interpretation of the film it can be said that one of the reasons why “Modern Times” has been so critically acclaimed is due to the fact that it was able to explore several themes regarding society with the main character saying little if nothing at all. In fact it can be stated that the depictions shown in the movie, though comedic in nature, are startlingly accurate to the way in which people in society have become so fixed in acting in such a particular way that they don’t even realize the prisons that they have created for themselves.

Coakley, Sarah. “Jail break. (cover story).” Christian Century 121.13 (2004): 18.

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IvyPanda. (2019, March 26). The "Modern Times" Movie. https://ivypanda.com/essays/modern-times/

"The "Modern Times" Movie." IvyPanda , 26 Mar. 2019, ivypanda.com/essays/modern-times/.

IvyPanda . (2019) 'The "Modern Times" Movie'. 26 March.

IvyPanda . 2019. "The "Modern Times" Movie." March 26, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/modern-times/.

1. IvyPanda . "The "Modern Times" Movie." March 26, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/modern-times/.

Bibliography

IvyPanda . "The "Modern Times" Movie." March 26, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/modern-times/.

Home / Essay Samples / Entertainment / Charlie Chaplin / Film Analysis: Modern Times By Charlie Chaplin

Film Analysis: Modern Times By Charlie Chaplin

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